Quick end to auction's Stage 2 may mean Comcast threw in the towel. Or it may mean nothing.

Image: Mike Licht/Flickr

The unexpectedly abrupt end to Stage 2 of the FCC’s incentive auction yesterday might mean a major player such as Comcast suddenly opted to throw in the towel in pursuit of those airwaves.

Or it might mean nothing at all.

The second stage of the highly anticipated auction ended after a single round yesterday after bidders offered up only $21.5 billion for TV broadcasters’ airwaves, far short of the $54.6 billion that was necessary for the event to conclude after the second stage. The FCC must now return to TV broadcasters for a third reverse auction, lessening the amount of spectrum it will make available to companies looking to use those airwaves to provide wireless services.

The surprisingly short round could indicate that a bidder looking to buy spectrum nationwide has put its wallet back in its pocket, according to Dan Hays, a principal with PwC.

“Unlike the first stage of the auction, which saw a gradual decrease in demand over multiple rounds, the demand profile in the second stage's single, forward round fell off quite rapidly,” Hays said via email. “Based on the pattern, this could well indicate the sudden exit of one nationwide license being sought, as demand in nearly every major market fell simultaneously from 10 licenses to 9.”

And Tim Farrar of TMF Associates took that scenario a step further, suggesting Comcast may have opted out of the bidding. The cable operator has been vocal about its desire to enter the wireless market, and UBS recently predicted it would spend $5 billion to $6 billion at auction to offer its own services.

Comcast last year activated its MVNO agreement with Verizon, however, and may no longer feel obliged to shell out billions for spectrum of its own.

Other analysts were more circumspect, however. Walter Piecyk of BTIG Research told FierceWireless that “there is still no information to make an educated guess on who is bidding in which markets or overall. Demand equaled supply at 10 blocks for most of the top 40 markets in Stage 1 and dropped to 9 in Stage 2. That does not necessarily mean that one bidder simply pulled out.”

In fact, Hays said, the truncated second stage could actually be part of a larger strategy by a bidder to buy spectrum on the cheap. The gap between what TV broadcasters want for their licenses and what bidders will pay remains wide, and those broadcasters must once again haggle over what they’ll accept for their spectrum.

“Finally, this could also be a very sophisticated auction strategy,” Hays wrote. “By dramatically reducing the number of bids in the first round, a clever bidder with excess capacity held over from the first stage could know with some degree of certainty that the second stage of the auction would likely close immediately, freezing prices and volleying the auction back to broadcasters.”